GOVERNMENT'S move to suspend all timber export licences, as a measure aimed at protecting the country's environmental resources and curbing deforestation, received divergent opinions from different players in the timber sector.
The decision to suspend the export of timber was announced by Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Minister, Wylbur Simuusa, as a measure to protect the country's fast depleting forests.
From this side of the coin, it may be viewed that Government's decision to suspend licences for exporting timber may be in the best interest of the country's forests, but other experts in the sector have counter views.
For instance, Timber Producers Association of Zambia (TPAZ) feels the ban on timber export has resulted in rampant smuggling of sawn timber, logs and other wooden products.
According to TPAZ, the country lost an estimated KR80 million in uncollected timber revenues following Government's decision to ban timber exports to member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Association secretary, Charles Masange, said the result is the loss of more than KR80 million that was due to Government last year and much more money is expected to be lost again this year, he added.
"Timber is a resource which poor Zambians can exploit and earn an income. But the opportunity is being denied to them by illegal activities," Mr Masange said.
Mr Masange expressed fears that if the situation was allowed to continue unchecked Zambia stood to lose substantially since timber was a diminishing resource that needed to be carefully managed if it was to benefit the rest of society.
Two years ago, Zambia imposed a ban on the exports of timber to member countries of SADC so as to come up with policies and measures that will instill primary preparation of timber in place of raw exports of timber.
Companies involved in the cutting of timber are now expected to saw it and manufacture items that can then be exported to foreign lands.
In scaling up measures aimed at curbing the fast rate at which the country's forests are being depleted, Mr Simuusa said in a ministerial statement to Parliament last year that the 2012/2013 National Tree Planting Programme (NTPP), sought to plant over 25 million tree, which is an equivalent of 20,000 hectares.
According to the minister, the NTPP would, once fully rolled out could create more than 200,000 jobs while the first phase of establishing 11 large-scale forest nurseries and community ones could create 6,000 jobs countrywide.
He said forestry were a renewable natural resource which with prudent management could sustain the country in providing forestry goods and employment opportunities.
On the suspension of timber licences, he said, as empowered under section 68 (20 9F) of the laws of Zambia, the move would not apply to exotic timber plantations or timber that legally extracted, processed and was in timber yards, factories or markets.
But only a few months ago, Micro Saw-Millers in the country attributed the poor performance of their business to Government's decision to restrict the amount of timber they are supposed to use per month.
The Zambia National Association of Saw Millers (ZNASM) said the members were operating at 20 per cent capacity following Government's restriction on the amount of round wood timber to between 30 to 100 cubic meters per month for micro-scale saw millers in the country.
ZNASM secretary general William Bwalya said an average micro saw mill operation could process 200 cubic meters in a month but instead the millers were being allocated between 30 to 100 cubic metres of round wood per month.
The lack of raw materials has had a negative effect on the viability of the micro-saw millers and inhibited the flow of cash in other aspects of the business such as value addition.
Members of ZNASM employ an excess of 8,460 direct employees, among whom 70 per cent of these offer unskilled labour, whose jobs may be threatened due to loss of revenue in the business.
ZNASM William Bwalya, the challenges resulting from the ban of the export of timber are many.
He mentioned that one of the major concerns was the large numbers of people that have lost employment as a direct effect of the ban on the exportation of timber, besides the huge loss of revenue, coupled with lost investments due to disused equipment which is currently lying idle.
"Some of the equipment will soon become obsolete because some of the equipment is getting soaked by rain water, and the rehabilitation costs for this equipment will be huge," he said.
Mr Bwalya said if there are any procedural or policy lapses that are affecting the sector, they should be addressed, and corrective measures should be put in place.
The timber sector raises about US$225 million per year, with an additional US$10 million realised from export of processed wood products such as furniture.
These sentiments have also been echoed by Eclipse Timber limited in Ndola director Wyson Kaluba, who explained that the ban on the export of timber has negatively affected the sector leaving most operators with little or no means to pay their employees.
"If the ban on the export of timber is aimed at streamlining the business operations of the timber sector, it should not take too long because the negative effects will be widespread. The ban on timber export should be lifted expeditiously," Mr Kaluba said.
He explained that Ndola alone has more than 200 saw millers, who each employ about 15 to 20 people, and that consumers of timber had become skeptical to purchase the commodity from them due to the uncertainty that surrounds the future of the business.
"Those buying timber from us are scared to do so because they are not sure when the ban on the export of the commodity will be lifted, so they are not willing to take that risk of buying without knowing the future of their business," he said.
Currently, most of the operators in the timber sector have large stocks of timber pilling in warehouses.
However, these concerns raised by the various stakeholder in the timber sector, may soon yield results, because during the launch of the 2012/2013 NTPP and opening of the forest season in Chongwe, Mr Simuusa announced its considerations to soon lift the ban on the exportation of timber.
The minister said the Government had held a series of successful meetings with stakeholders such as the Timber Association of Zambia after the ban came into effect.
"I would like to announce that with the successful meetings, we have had some understanding and I wish to report that shortly, I will be lifting the ban on timber with conditions," he said.
He said current statistics indicated that Zambia's deforestation levels stood at 250,000 to 300,000 per hectare annually.
This entails that the country has one of the highest deforestation levels in the world.
It is only hoped that after all the necessary procedures are exhausted, an amicable solution will be reached on how best to sustain the timber business, whilst ensuring that matters related to the protection of the country's forests, are also taken into consideration.